Tennessee Supreme Court Affirms Conviction Despite Prosecutor Submitting Wrong Allegation to Jury

By Daniel A. Horwitz

The Supreme Court of Tennessee’s opinion in State v. Knowles presents an undeniably horrifying set of facts involving multiple allegations of rape of a young child.  Considered apart from the outrageous crime involved, however, the legal issue presented in Knowles was fairly straightforward.  In child sexual abuse cases where the jury has heard proof of more than one alleged instance of sexual misconduct, Tennessee law requires the prosecution to “elect” the particular offense for which it is seeking a conviction.  The “election” requirement serves at least five separate purposes, although the majority’s opinion only mentions two of them.

First, the election requirement serves to “allow the State some latitude in the prosecution of criminal acts committed against young children who are frequently unable to identify a specific date on which a particular offense was committed.”[1]  Second, it “preserve[s] a criminal defendant’s right under [Article I, Section 6 of] the state constitution to a unanimous jury verdict”[2] by ensuring that the jurors “deliberate over and render a verdict on the same offense.”[3]  Additionally, however, as Justice Wade’s dissenting opinion reflects, the election requirement also: [3] “ensures that a defendant is able to prepare for and make a defense for a specific charge,” [4] “protects a defendant against double jeopardy by prohibiting retrial on the same specific charge,” and [5] “enables the trial court and the appellate courts to review the legal sufficiency of the evidence.”[4]

In this case, the prosecution misidentified the factual basis for the charged offense by mistakenly “electing” to submit an allegation to the jury that all parties agree did not occur.  Specifically, the prosecution elected to allege that one particular sexual act had taken place, when in fact, the evidence clearly reflected that a different act occurred.  Unfortunately, this mistake was perpetuated in the trial court’s instructions to the jury, which read, in pertinent part, that:

“In this case, the [S]tate has elected to submit for your consideration the alleged act of Rape of a Child by Cunnilingus . . . .  Members of the jury, you are to consider only this alleged act in deciding whether or not the [D]efendant has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the offense[] charged . . . in the indictment.”[5]

Although the evidence indicated that the defendant had committed a rape of a child, the evidence also reflected that the rape definitely had not occurred by cunnilingus.  That fact notwithstanding, however, the jury found the defendant guilty anyway, and he was ultimately sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.

The question presented for review was whether the error was substantial enough to require that the defendant receive a new trial.  Ultimately, four justices concluded that a new trial was not warranted.  According to the majority, the prosecution’s election, although inaccurate, was sufficiently detailed as to preclude the possibility that the jurors were considering different allegations, rendering the error harmless.  Specifically, the Court held:

“Because the State’s election and the jury instruction identified a date and location and referenced a meaningful event in the victim’s life, the inaccuracy concerning the means by which the element of sexual penetration was accomplished did not create a substantial risk of a nonunanimous verdict as to the offense of rape of a child[.]”[6]

Thus, the defendant’s conviction for rape of a child was affirmed.

Read the majority’s opinion in State v. Knowles, authored by Justice Connie Clark, here.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.

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[1] State v. Rickman, 876 S.W.2d 824, 828 (Tenn. 1994).

[2] Id.

[3] State v. Adams, 24 S.W.3d 289, 294 (Tenn. 2000).  See also State v. Johnson, 53 S.W.3d 628, 631 (Tenn. 2001) (“The election requirement safeguards the defendant’s state constitutional right to a unanimous jury verdict by ensuring that jurors deliberate and render a verdict based on the same evidence.”).

[4] Id.

[5] See State v. Knowles, No. W2013-00503-SC-R11-CD, 2015 WL 4717708, at *13 (Tenn. July 31, 2015) (Wade, J., dissenting).

[6] Knowles,2015 WL 4717708, at *8.